Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Pynchon Takes the Fork in the Road*1

Academic journal article Connotations : a Journal for Critical Debate

Pynchon Takes the Fork in the Road*1

Article excerpt

"Even if you forget everything else, " Rinpungpa instructs the Yogi, "remember one thing - when you come to a fork in the road, take it. " Easy for him to say, of course, being two people at once.

(Pynchon, Against the Day 766)

The enigmatic seal, inscribed in Tibetan, on the dust jacket and final front-fly-page of Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day can, with a stretch of the imagination, be interpreted as a caricature of the Tibetan yogi coming to the fork in the road to mythical Shambhala and then looking both ways. The actual quotation is that of the legendary baseball player and Mets manager, Yogi Berra, giving directions to his New Jersey home which was equally accessible along either of the two roads branching out from the fabled fork. This passage in the novel is not just a comic replay of Berra' s most famous remark, for "being two people at once" is a recurring theme in Against the Day. Pynchon traces the phenomenon back to "the mysterious shamanic power known as bilocation, which enables those with the gift literaUy to be in two or more places, often widely separated, at the same time" (Against 143). The Tibetan scholar W. Y. Evans-Wentz (152, 177, 178) records legends of Padmasambhava's shamanic bilocational power to transform "himself into a pair of hawks," into "Three Chief Teachers" or even into "Five Dhyani Buddhas" (see also Kohn, Ambivalence 110). The "memory we carry of having once moved at the speed and density of light," Pynchon explains, makes us "once more able to pass where we will, through lantern-horn, through window-glass, eventually, though we risk being divided in two, through Iceland spar" (Against 688). The shadowed print on the dust jacket of Against the Day, a visual metaphor for the doubly-refractive property of Iceland spar, can be easily replicated with a crystal of this unique but plentiful mineral. When Pynchon fancies bilocated persons - such as Renfrew and Werfner, who were "one and the same person, had been all along" but "somehow had the paranormal power to be in at least two places at the same time, maintaining day-to-day lives at two different universities" - he is perhaps intimating that there are two Pynchons authoring the novel along dissimilar narrative roads (Against 685).2

I interpret the two roads simultaneously taken in Against the Day as the two antithetical approaches to writing identified by Peter J. Rabinowitz. In the first of these, an author of fiction connects with his or her anticipated audience on the basis of mutually established rules; this is what Rabinowitz means when he argues that authors "usually write for readers who are capable of taking pleasure in certain aspects of their texts," and it is those readers whom the author takes to be his or her "authorial audience" (7). Along the second authorial road there are no rules, and connections between author and readers are problematic because "you can't perform the task unless you know beforehand what [the] directions [for reading] are" (Rabinowitz 51). This "Quixotic [...] or idiosyncratic" approach to writing, which Rabinowitz (58) disparages, likewise troubles William Logan, who complains that "[i]t isn't clear whether Pynchon plots by the seat of his pants or has his own secret and impenetrable designs" (233). As befits Rabinowitz' s negative appraisal of idiosyncratic writing, some reviewers of Against the Day deemed it a failure. "[DJespite its partial achievements," concludes Tom LeClair, this "novel as a whole resembles the zeppelin that appears in its first pages, a giant bag of imaginative hot air." Louis Menand calls it "a very imperfect book. Imperfect not in the sense of 'Ambitious but flawed/ Imperfect in the sense of 'What was he thinking?'" (170). Alternatively, Liesl Schillinger's (10) praise for Pynchon's "idiosyncratic genius" may signal that some critics are starting to think, as Rabinowitz allowed they might, in terms of some new generic placement within which idiosyncrasy "makes sense" (63). …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.